“Love and Other Drugs” has an immediate leg-up on its romcom competition in that it actually has a halfway decent premise. Set against the backdrop of the nineties pharmaceutical boom, and with a charismatic Jake Gyllenhaal shucking Zoloft and Viagra for the umbrella company Pfizer (drugs which today are so commonplace that Microsoft Office automatically capitalized them for me), there is the tantalizing potential that “Love and Other Drugs” may do more than play it safe.
Now consider Anne Hathaway as an artsy early-onset Parkinson’s victim and the hard R for nudity, and it feels as though the filmmakers are genuinely determined to take a few risks—and they do, but not necessarily in the right places. Much of “Love and Other Drugs” feels frustratingly formulaic, and conflicting ideas (presumably the amalgam of multiple drafts and authors) lend the film an unkempt, atonal quality. A surplus of half-baked ideas suffices in the place of one strong one, and this nearly two-hour endeavor never amounts to more than the sum of its disparate parts.
Its most interesting aspect is surely the pharmaceutical angle, and one of the greatest shortcomings of “Love and Other Drugs” is that it fails to take a definitive stance on the industry. The rock-and-roll Pfizer presentation Gyllenhaal is treated to early on is a great scene with irony to spare—the theatrics and sexiness with which the company presents itself is as humorous as it is overlooked later on. The satiric edge that marks a strong beginning is then dulled on narrative millstones that impede its momentum.
Eventually, the film skirts or ignores politics wherever possible. Maggie (Hathaway’s character) is totally reliant on expensive medication to offset the effects of her first-stage Parkinson’s, but she never expresses contempt for the system despite chartering a regular bus trip from Chicago to Canada to land cheaper meds. Strangely, she seems to hold no grudge against Pfizer or its representative, Jamie (Gyllenhaal). If anything, she seems as staunch a supporter as the salesman himself.
But once their relationship begins in earnest, the romantic comedy autopilot kicks in, and what made “Love and Other Drugs” even somewhat unique is left high and dry in favor of straight up archetype. But what’s even more annoying is Jamie’s slovenly live-in brother, a Jonah Hill-esque 'comic relief' character who serves no purpose to the plot whatsoever. He exists purely for comedic potential—a potential that is not once realized. His existence in this world is tacked-on and transient.
Still, as far as romantic comedies go—and I can’t profess to being an expert on the genre—you could do worse than “Love and Other Drugs.” Half the battle is establishing likable characters and a compelling scenario, both of which the film manages admirably. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are fine together, and both have the opportunity to play off of some interesting character actors (Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt). The real shame is that the film never comes together in spite of everything it has going for it. Medical malady drama one minute, sweet romance the next, and lame duck comedy after that, “Love and Other Drugs” is ultimately the median between its successful peaks and deep, disappointing troughs.
Though the film multitasks poorly and muddles its message, it isn’t the disaster it might have been. Even in botching its potential it has spurts of creativity, which is more than can be said for most of its uninspired kindred. Having fun and playing it safe aren’t always mutually exclusive, after all.